The problems with what Adichie said.

Chimimanda Adichie recently stated some harmful misconceptions about trans women, ignoring advice she is famous for, to not reduce varied people to single stories. I spent the last week (re)writing this to deconstruct some facets of what happened that I haven’t seen other people discuss, and to quote in one place from the people who’ve already deconstructed other facets.

To start, she doesn’t want to use the word “cis”. This is common among people who may be willing to admit that trans/nb people (or people of color, or people with disabilities) face discrimination, but won’t admit the other side of the coin, that cis people (white people, able-bodied people) enjoy some unearned privilege. Avoiding the word that distinguishes them is a way of avoiding admitting they are treated distinctly. Some cis people act outright insulted when their privilege is pointed out, and claim “cis” is a slur. Others just don’t know and don’t try to learn what the word means.

Adichie initially contrasted “trans women” with “women”. That makes no sense unless you see that she thinks “women” by itself means “cis women”, which is clearly problematic. Compare how, if a film calls for “a woman” or “a man”, white casting directors always cast a white person. If a writer wants an Asian, they have to specify “Asian” … and even then, a director may cast Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone anyway, but that’s another story.

Next, she said “trans women [vs] women born female”, her version of white transphobic feminists’ word salad, “women-born-women”. This too makes no sense: neither a trans woman nor a cis one reveals her gender until well after birth. (And there’s only one sex variable all cis women seem to have, and it’s one trans women also have: brain structure. Things like ovaries aren’t present in some intersex cis women, and are present in some intersex trans women.)

The thing she explicitly uses as the basis for segregating “trans women” from “women” is the idea that trans and cis women have inherently different experiences — but to the extent that that’s not mistaken, it’s irrelevant. Specifically, her most tired, harmful pair of misconceptions is (1) that trans women categorically “benefited from the privileges the world affords men” before they transitioned, supposedly unlike cis women who always faced discrimination, and (2) that this somehow separates trans women from true “women”. These claims fall apart in the face of three intertwined truths:

First, as Raquel Willis says, “it’s nonsensical and privileged to require trans women to experience certain instances of oppression to prove their womanhood.” “I am a woman regardless of my experiences of sexual harassment”, etc, and it’s bizarre Adichie “either thinks trans women can’t undergo [that] or it matters less when these things happen to us[, as they do. …] I am not interested in a three-fifths compromise on my womanhood.”

Second: some trans girls live as girls from the same early age that both they and cis girls can first express gender, before age 3 (the age by which psychologists agree gender identity is articulable in most people, whether they’re cis or trans or non-binary). No memory is shared by all cis women and yet by none of these or other trans women. (No, not even menstruation: some adult cis women never menstruate, as many have noted.) This is the clearest place Adichie fails her advice to not assume varied people have one story.

Third… if you’re going to say you’re talking about trans women (or trans men, or non-binary people) who came out after childhood… listen to them first. In fact, let them be the ones who explain their experience!

Some trans women did experience being treated ‘better’ before transition in some ways, by some people, than people who were assumed to be girls. (And some of those ‘girls’ later came out as trans men or non-binary people — where are they in this? would Adichie argue they’re part woman?) One woman tells one facet of her story at robot-hugs.com/technigal/. But trans and non-binary people also experience, even before coming out, society denying and gaslighting us about who we are, insisting people like us don’t exist or shouldn’t, and threatening violence on such people generally and (implicitly or explicitly) on each of us if we don’t stay in the round cells they jail our squares in. Laverne Cox and a black trans man have talked about this. For cis people to assert that the net effect of this is “privilege” for all or even most trans/nb people betrays a privileged lack of understanding.

Similarly, some trans women internalized some misogyny before coming out, but not all did, and many cis women internalize msiogyny. If that invalidated women, a lot of cis women would lose their womanhood before that razor reached trans women.

But to return to the first point, privilege doesn’t diminish womanhood. If it did, Ijeoma Oluo says, “I’ve got some rich white [cis] ladies I’d love to vote off Feminist Island first” before e.g. black trans women. White and black women certainly have some different experiences and levels of privilege! And as I and others note, trans women on average face more sexism and discrimination in their lifetimes than cis women: trans women are twice as likely as cis women to be denied employment, and to be denied housing; a staggering 1 in 5 cis women is sexually assaulted and yet an even more unimaginable 1 in 2 trans women is sexually assaulted; etc. As Raquel Willis said, “if you want to play Oppression Olympics, sorry cis women, you’re going to lose more often than not, which is [one reason] why this convo isn’t productive.”

Feminists need to stop helping the patriarchy hurt trans women, and fight that patriarchy.

(As an aside: as many note, Adichie has received more attention than white TERFs who say the same things. She is more currently famous than many white TERFs, but people are also more reluctant to call out white women for bigotry than black women, when they should call out both.)